FIGHTING TRAGEDY WITH THE GERUNDS OF GODLINESS

The Lord said to Moses, “Early in the morning persent yourself to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews:  Let My people go to worship Me.  For this time I will send all My plagues upon your person, and your courtiers, and your people, in order that you may know that there is none like Me in the world’.”

-Exodus 9:13-14

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Have you ever seen a “plague bag”? The term doesn’t refer to a piece of equipment found at the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, in Atlanta. Rather, some years ago an enterprising individual came up with a wonderful idea to enhance the Seder experience for children. For just a few bucks, you can purchase a small bag containing everything needed for a playful re-enactment of the ten plagues — there’s a tube of red liquid to symbolize the bloody water of the Nile, small rubber frogs, a packet of plastic insects etc. Plague bag-making has become something of a cottage industry; many synagogue Judaica shops, including our own, stock and sell them around Passover.

Of course, in real life one cannot miniaturize and control nature as if it were the contents of a Passover plague bag — playthings to be removed and returned to a sack at will instead of being the overwhelming elements they truly are. In Psalm 104 the Psalmist ecstatically proclaims: “מָֽה־רַבּ֬וּ מַֽעֲשֶׂ֨יךָ ה’ כֻּ֭לָּם בְּחָכְמָ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ מָלְאָ֥ה הָ֝אָ֗רֶץ קִנְיָנֶֽךָ — How many are the things You have made, O Lord; You have made them all with wisdom, the earth is full of Your creations” (Psalm 104:24).  In this paean to the beauty of creation you can almost hear Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice singing What a Wonderful World.

Yet many would disagree that this is a wonderful world. Ask Fatimata Gaima, a woman from Sierra Leone who struggled to survive Ebola, only to watch her husband and all her children die from the disease. Ask Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, a physician with Doctors Without Borders, who captured on film some of the 4,000 children orphaned by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa — including two babies who found a surrogate “father” in another orphan, a six-year-old named Abdul. According to the Center for Disease Control, as of just yesterday Ebola has claimed the lives of approximately 8,500 victims, a figure which does not include the survivors who are shunned and driven out of their homes and villages or the disintegration of families in which breadwinners and care-givers have perished, leaving young children and elderly dependents at the mercy of the elements. While not quite the same as the plagues which decimated the Egyptians, the collapse of the already frayed social fabric in many West African communities is as total as that suffered by Egyptian society.

ויאמרו החרטמים אל פרעה אצבע אלקים הוא — “And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This the finger of God!’”(Exodus 8:15). We, too, view the plagues of Egypt as coming from a יד חזקה וזרוע נטויה, God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” saving Israel from oppression. And if we are able to live comfortably with the misery of the Egyptians, if we are even able to package neatly that suffering in plague bags selling for $7.95 in a Judaica shop, it is because the Exodus story does not disturb our basic sense of fair play — quite to the contrary. Nature turned malevolent, but only to punish those who oppressed us. Like the “controlled burns” utilized by the Forest Service, the afflictions of Egypt were contained; limited to certain parts of the land, our ancestors remained untouched in the province of Goshen. How can you argue with plagues that only affect the bad guys?

Almost three hundred years ago, the German philosopher and mathematician, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz, coined the term “theodicy,” from the Greek theos meaning “God” and dike meaning “justice.” Theodicy refers to the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with a God that is both omnipotent and all-good. The word may be a relative newcomer to the lexicon of theology, but the problem is as old as the world itself. Where was God in the outbreak of Ebola, or for that matter, in a hundred other tragedies? Could it be, as Shakespeare once said, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport”?

My colleague, Harold Kushner, writes in his best seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, that he cannot accept a God who would cruelly destroy human life for no reason. Like a parent unable to save a child, when human life is injured, brutalized or destroyed, God is present to comfort us, to hold us, to heal us, to love us. . . yet unable to save us. In mystical terms, Kabbalah teaches that the world’s creation came through tzimtzum, an act of Divine contraction. In a universe filled with God’s essence, there could be no room for other beings. It was only through an act of willful contraction of the Divine self — the kabbalistic analogue to the Big Bang, albeit in reverse — that humanity came into being. Once established the rules do not change. Human beings sometimes die unfairly, and there’s nothing God can do about it. . .

Rabbi Kushner’s perspective has merit when applied to the existence of human evil. As Rabbi Akiva teaches, הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה — “All is foreseen, yet free will is granted” (Mishnah Avot 3:15).  To be created in the Divine Image is to possess consciousness, the ability to understand the moral implications of our decisions. That at times human beings can be “little lower than the angels”, yet at other moments commit acts of unspeakable butchery is built into the spiritual proteins of our moral DNA. And if we, either individually or collectively, misuse our God-given potential for righteousness, the moral liability and onus lies squarely on our shoulders, not God’s. When asked “Where was God during the Shoah?” Elie Wiesel once answered that the real question should be “Where was man?”

Yet natural calamities are of an entirely different genus; they are random and unthinking. Strictly speaking, they are not evil at all, simply amoral forces of gravity, geophysics or biology. But if Judaism believes order and purpose to be the very hallmarks of God’s creation, it is hard to fathom what role is played in the providential design by the chaos of earthquakes and hurricanes, tsunamis and plagues? Where is God when a child perishes from leukemia, or a care-giver who puts herself in harm’s way contracts the very disease she is fighting? Is the God of order also the God of chaos? Or do we — like Rabbi Kushner — simply relieve God of the responsibility of those natural forces that take human life with no rhyme or reason?

It is tempting to embrace Harold Kushner’s view, yet I cannot ultimately subscribe to belief in a “gerrymandered God” (to use the phrase of my teacher, Dr. Neil Gillman). גדול אדונינו ורב כח, לתבונתו אין מספר — “Great is our Ruler, vast is God’s power; beyond measure is God’s wisdom” — so we pray each morning in the words of Psalm 147. Indeed, our liturgy and our sacred literature are suffused with references to a Divine Being whose authority and power transcend all limits and boundaries. To circumscribe God’s liability because reality disturbs our sense of theological fair play seems disingenuous and artificial, no matter how well-intentioned. When the biblical figure of Job confronts the good Lord with the fact of his senseless suffering, God does not deny responsibility; instead, God firmly insists on the scope of Divine power: “Would you impugn My justice? Would you condemn Me that you may be right? Have you an arm like God’s? Can you thunder with a voice like His?”

We have no answers to these questions. Yet there is a time-honored Jewish tradition of arguing God. The Berditchever Rebbe, a great Hasidic leader of the late 18th century, fearlessly took God to task for allowing innocent life to suffer with neither rhyme nor reason. To confront God is itself a consummate affirmation of faith — for when we are upset that God violates God’s own rules, it’s because we believe Divine goodness is supposed to manifest itself in the workings of the world. As in the case of Abraham our ancestor, who argued that the innocent should not be destroyed along with the wicked of Sodom, Judaism offers an ancient precedent for challenging God to abide by God’s own standards.

But to chide God while standing aloof from suffering is no less than act of blasphemy. Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of blessed memory, once wrote, “The question to be asked of those who seek God is not whether they believe in a noun that cannot be known, but whether they believe in the gerunds of Godliness: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, supporting the fallen, pursuing peace, loving the neighbor.” We can find the design of a moral universe, but only if we look to the fabric of our own lives and the spaces between ourselves and others. Do we fill those spaces with “the gerunds of Godliness” or do we allow them to remain barren and forsaken, devoid of God’s presence?

I don’t know where God has been during the Ebola epidemic, the news of which has faded from newspaper headlines in the United States because there have been no more new cases in this country. But I do know that God may be found wherever we allow Godliness to be. God stands by the physicians of Doctors Without Borders who are working indefatigably to save life in Liberia.  God is present in the deeds of people like Alhassan Kemokai, an Ebola survivor from Sierra Leone, who is using his experience to teach and sensitize others about the true nature of the disease.  And surely God’s presence abides amidst those who have given tzedakah to organizations like the CDC Foundation, created by the U.S. Congress to alleviate the suffering of thousands for no other reason than their belief that we are, indeed, our brothers’ keepers.  After reading this piece, I hope you will utilize the contact information at the top of this post to contribute to the fight against Ebola.  In so doing you will join yourself to the gerunds of Godliness.

There will continue to be deadly diseases. But God’s spirit can fill all the empty spaces between the peoples of this earth. Even as we read in this week’s Torah portion of how God afflicted our Egyptian oppressors with plagues, let us pray that the words of Deuteronomy soon prove true: וְהֵסִ֧יר ה’ מִמְּךָ֖ כָּל־חֹ֑לִי וְכָל־מַדְוֵי֩ מִצְרַ֨יִם הָֽרָעִ֜ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר יָדַ֗עְתָּ לֹ֤א יְשִׂימָם֙ בָּ֔ךְ — The Lord will remove from you all sickness, and God will not bring upon you the dreadful plagues of Egypt with which you are familiar” (Deuteronomy 7:15). So may it be God’s will; so may it be ours.

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